On 20 January 2014, months after taking office, President Abdulla Yameen unveiled his foreign policy. He underlined the importance of peace, dialogue, adherence to international laws and said his main objective was to “increase opportunities for economic advancement” for the Maldives.
Since then the country has forged close ties with China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, much to the chagrin of its traditional allies: India, friendly Western states and the European Union.
With less than a month to go before a presidential election, the Maldives Independent sought to assess the equation the country shares with the seven of its closest allies with an embassy in the capital.
The Maldives Independent also interviewed Sathiya Moorthy, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in India, to ask what electoral outcome these countries want: status quo or a transfer of power.
Expat population (according to the Statistical Yearbook of Maldives 2017, published by the National Bureau of Statistics): 38,626*
Although the two countries have existing trade ties – Maldives imports river sand from Bangladesh, an essential component for construction – Bangladesh is best known in the Maldives for its human capital. Most of its expatriate workers are involved in the construction, manufacturing and hospitality sectors, forming the largest chunk of the Maldives’ unskilled labour force.
There are an estimated 60,000 undocumented workers in the Maldives, most of them from Bangladesh. With employment opportunities low in their home country, those working in the Maldives are often subjected to forced labour, fraudulent recruitment, debt bondage and confiscation of identity and travel documents, according to the US State Department’s Watchlist for Human Trafficking. However, they also contributed nearly US$30 million to Bangladesh as foreign remittances in 2017.
Unlike India, China’s increasing ties with the Maldives don’t affect Bangladeshi interests. “Bangladesh is a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. So no matter which government gets elected, Bangladesh would want the current status of its relationship to continue,” says Moorthy.
Status Quo or Got to Go? Either.
Expat population: 20,701*
India exports medicines, textiles, agriculture and poultry produce to the island-state worth around US$100 million. Thousands of expats work in the Maldives, mainly in the construction, education and healthcare sectors. Due to their close ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties, successive leaders have pursued an “India first” foreign policy.
But the most distinguishing feature of Yameen’s foreign policy has been the compromise on this approach. Increasing overtures towards China and Pakistan are seen as a threat to India’s influence. The Maldives is the only country in the subcontinent that the globe-trotting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hasn’t visited. In recent months, India has repeatedly called for restoration of democracy and the rule of law in the Maldives.
“India has clearly stated its position on the Maldives’ need for free and fair elections. Not since the 1971 war with Pakistan (which led to the creation of Bangladesh) have they been as pronounced on the democratic issues in a neighbouring country. In doing so, it seemed to speak for its allies across the world [including the Western nations],” says Moorthy.
Status Quo or Got to Go? Got to go.
Expat population: 10,157
Like India, Sri Lanka shares ethnic, cultural and linguistic similarities with the Maldives. Many Maldivians have a second home in Sri Lanka and the Maldives is of huge interest for Sri Lankan investors. Along with food exports, Sri Lanka also assists with the capacity building of Maldives military personnel.
Yameen described Sri Lanka as one of the Maldives’ “closest partners” last year. Members of the Maldives’ exiled political opposition, including former president Mohamed Nasheed, have also sought refuge in Sri Lanka.
“Sri Lanka’s relationship with the Maldives is more people-to-people. As long as that’s not hampered, the outcome of the elections won’t bother them. Historically, they have had a relationship with the opposition (Maldivian Democratic Party) but lately, they haven’t made many statements on the political matters in the Maldives,” says Moorthy.
Status Quo or Got to Go? Either.
Expat population: 1,855
Although Nasheed facilitated the Chinese embassy set-up in the Maldives in 2011, it was under Yameen that China acquired its largest footprint in the Indian Ocean region.
It started with infrastructure investments: the housing units in Hulhumalé and the China-Maldives Friendship Bridge. A 2015 constitutional amendment allowing foreign freeholds was largely seen as an effort to allow further Chinese investments.
Last year Yameen signed a free trade agreement with China, accepted to be a part of its Maritime Silk Road and signed several pacts for bilateral cooperation in the fields of health, tourism, technology and climate change. While he has been congratulating himself for bringing about unprecedented development, analysts see it part of the Chinese “debt for leverage” model, ready to be exploited to gain access to the country’s natural resources and for strategic reasons.
“The China-Maldives relationship is likely to continue no matter who is in power. Given the kind of money China has invested, it’s not possible for the Maldives to repay it across the table with a single cheque. Ibu [the opposition’s presidential candidate] too has said that the relationship with China won’t change. While Yameen hasn’t denied a military pact with China, it will certainly not happen if there’s a change of government.”
Status Quo or Got to Go? Status quo.
Expat population: 354
Unlike his predecessors who chose not to forge deeper ties with Pakistan due to its historic rivalry with India, Yameen has been far more welcoming of its neighbour across the Arabian sea. In May 2016, Defence Minister Adam Shareef Umar announced that Pakistan would be lending it US$10 million to buy two aircraft for training and surveillance, and a cargo vessel.
Last July, Yameen invited then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif as chief guest for a three-day independence celebration. While Sharif has since been shunted out of office, Pakistan’s ties with the Maldives seem unaffected. In April this year, the two countries discussed the possibility of joint patrols of the Exclusive Economic Zone during the visit of Qamar Javed Bajwa, Pakistan’s army chief. Shortly after Imran Khan was elected as prime minister, Yameen called to congratulate him and express his commitment towards expansion of bilateral ties.
“Going by Pakistan’s history, it will take time for any elected government in the Maldives to assess its credibility before deepening its ties,” says Moorthy. “However, both sides will want to play with caution. A non-Yameen government might not give it a lot of concessions in terms of military presence or joint military exercises.”
Status Quo or Got to Go? Status quo.
Expat population: N/A
The Maldives’ ties with Japan go back to 1967. Over the years, it has helped the Maldives build up its communication technology by helping lay undersea fibre-optic cables, through grant and technical assistance projects aiming to reduce diseases in rural areas and beefing up its coastal protection mechanism.
After India, Japan was the second country Yameen visited in 2014 after being elected. Following a meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the two countries announced their intention to work together in areas of defence, climate change efforts and sustainable fisheries development.
In spite of Yameen’s turbulent reign Japan has refrained from commenting on the Maldives’ domestic issues. However, in July this year, MEP Tomas Zdechovsky indicated that Japan was among the six non-EU countries supporting European efforts “to uphold democracy and democratic processes” in the Maldives.
“In geostrategic terms, Japan is India’s partner against China,” says Moorthy. “But how it takes the relationship forward with India remains to be seen.”
Status Quo or Got to Go? It’s complicated.
Expat population: N/A
Yameen has courted the Saudi government by playing up their shared religious identity and offering the Maldives as an investment destination. Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz was the first international leader to visit the country after Yameen was sworn in. The same year, 2014, Saudi Arabia inaugurated an embassy in the capital.
In March 2017, Yameen announced a Saudi-funded $10 billion project, similar to “mixed development projects in French Riviera” with airports, residential areas and tourist resorts. In March 2018, Saudi Arabia announced a grant of US$160m for “development projects” in the Maldives along with the United Arab Emirates, although details are hard to come by.
“The Saudis hold all the cards, so the outcome of the elections won’t really affect them,” says Moorthy. “Recently, Ibu also announced that ties with Saudi Arabia will continue under his government. But under his government, while the political relationship will continue, the political equation might not be the same.”
Status Quo or Got to Go? Status quo
*According to the US State Department, there are 60,000 undocumented workers in the Maldives, most of them from Bangladesh and India. The National Bureau of Statistics number excludes undocumented workers.